Skating away from war: The Four Hollywood Blondes tour Europe, 1939-40
This blog includes temporary access to a document from our new collection America in World War Two: Oral Histories and Personal Accounts. Click the images to view the document for free for 30 days.
'Skates took them to Nazi-land for performances as a roller-skating team, but a refugee ship brought them home to America'.
And so â€˜The Four Hollywood Blondesâ€™ rollerskating troupe's extraordinary 1939-40 tour of Europe, which took in performances in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden came to an end, all diligently recorded in a series of equally extraordinary scrapbooks assembled by one of its members, Celeste Eichling of Memphis, Tennessee. These scrapbooks, held at the National WWII Museum and digitised by Adam Matthew for its new collection America in World War Two: Oral Histories and Personal Accounts, present a fascinating account of the opening stages of the Second World War in Europe, through the eyes of a young American citizen who found herself caught up in an escalating conflict.
Although the outbreak of hostilities in Europe had led the United Statesâ€™ diplomatic mission to organise an evacuation of American citizens from Germany, the Four Hollywood Blondes were among those who stayed, owing to contractual obligations with Berlin theatres. On 15 September, the troupe performed at a hospital for an audience which included German soldiers. This elicited thanks from the Plaza Theatreâ€™s director on behalf of the KDF (Kraft durch Friede, or â€˜Strength Through Joyâ€™) organisation.
Although Britain and France had declared war on Germany on 3 September, there was little fighting in western Europe, a situation which became known as the â€˜Phoney Warâ€™. Nevertheless, preparations for war continued among the belligerent powers, and in late November, the Soviet Union attacked Finland. Among the clippings diligently saved by Celeste is one from a Dutch publication featuring the rather striking juxtaposition of articles concerning the Four Hollywood Blondes and other entertainment acts, British aerial surveillance of Germany, and the conflict in Finland. The troupeâ€™s tour of Europe continued, but their sojourn in Denmark, in April-May 1940, coincided with the German invasion of the country.
The tour continued to Sweden, and back to Denmark â€“ where one of its members, Joan Reid, was apparently questioned by the Gestapo, suspected of being a spy. After completing their July dates in Denmark, the group returned to the United States aboard the US Army Transport American Legion, ordered to bring American citizens home. A perilous twelve-day voyage from northern Finland to New York skirted sea mines and, according to the shipâ€™s captain, risked attack by German naval vessels owing to the declaration of a blockade against Britain. As newspaper cuttings collated by Celeste attest, the shipâ€™s arrival home attracted significant media attention â€“ among its passengers were the American ambassador to Norway, members of the Norwegian royal family, and the Four Hollywood Blondes, who were quartered in the cramped vesselâ€™s brig [i.e., its jail cell].
Celeste later became a performer with the USO, entertaining US troops stationed in Asia. Although her wartime experience might be considered far from the norm, the personal collections featured in America in World War Two such as her scrapbooks, letters and souvenirs can provide us with insights into how the Second World War affected American citizens, even before the United Statesâ€™ entry into the conflict.